Civil Resistance and Climate Justice

April 20, 2017 | By: James Whelan

civil resistance

What are the barriers to building a powerful civil resistance movement? What will it take to resource this? What is Civil Resistance? Civil resistance refers to the use of sustained, loosely organised, nonviolent, often disobedient, action in pursuit of social, economic, and political aims. It is a strategy and approach to change, not a tactic, that starts as a series of actions which escalate into campaigns and movements to overcome oppressive governments, corporations or individuals.

Civil resistance starts as a series of actions which escalate into campaigns which grow to form a movement that then overcomes, or transforms, the source of oppression it seeks to counter.

Civil resistance for climate justice is action that goes outside conventional political process like petitions, rallies, lobbying, voting or contesting elections, to include nonviolent tactics like strikes, boycotts, blockades and other actions that withdraw people’s consent and cooperation from the fossil fuel industry.

According to sociologist Stellan Vinthagen, civil resistance breaks down oppressive power structures through the use of strategy, expressive culture and drama designed to move people’s emotions and counter stereotypes, heightened dialogue, and a desire to embody nonviolent norms and create just, peaceful, and sustainable alternatives.

The climate movement has used civil disobedience and disruptive tactics in recent years, but civil resistance would be about nonviolent strategy – larger scale, broader and deeper activities. Moving from moments, into momentum… sustained and escalatory.

Think – Break Free – but bigger, longer and focused at infrastructure all over the country. Think the People’s Climate March, but staying to occupy the streets, or establishing a sustained occupation in or outside of Parliaments. Think mass non-cooperation from workers and general strikes. Imagine the eroding of social license reflected back in art, posters and graffiti across our suburbs, and fossil fuel companies exiled from our cities. Imagine a million people on the streets not taking no for an answer.

What does Civil Resistance have to offer the climate movement?

The climate crisis is accelerating at a pace that none of us could have predicted, from extreme weather events destroying local communities to sea level rise threatening entire cultures, the impacts are growing in intensity and pace. The response to this crisis is not yet commensurate with the challenge we face. Despite some big wins in recent years and well-intentioned efforts by many, we are not winning this fight. Civil resistance movements have confronted seemingly insurmountable crises from apartheid and environmental injustice to dictatorships and independence struggles, and won. Whilst efforts have been made to apply the lessons of these successes to the climate crisis, our movement is lacking a coordinated strategy that will generate the level of sustained disruption required to firmly and fully confront the sources of power driving the climate crisis and shift public opinion en masse.

Through sustained and polarising acts of civil resistance we can move climate change from something most Australians give little thought to something they are confronted with on the 7 o’clock news, at the shopping mall, at their kids school, in their workplaces, in other words – we can give it such proximity to all aspects of everyday life that people are forced to take a side

These are the six key qualities that civil resistance can offer the climate movement to achieve our aims:

1. SPEED: It takes time for civil resistance movements to build enough momentum to overcome oppressive structures, however once they reach peak momentum, change has followed extremely quickly. According to the latest analysis, we will overstep a “safe” level of global warming in as little as three to four years from now. Despite decades of well-intentioned efforts by the environment movement, conventional advocacy and protest are failing to deliver action commensurate with the crisis. We need a bold new plan to rapidly get off fossil fuels and build a safe, clean, and just energy future.

2. SUCCESS: Research proves that nonviolent campaigns are more than twice as effective as violent campaigns in achieving their aims. Despite terrible odds, civil resistance movements have fought gross injustices such as apartheid (e.g. civil rights movement), environmental degradation (e.g the Franklin Dam campaign) homophobia (e.g. marriage equality movements), racism (e.g. anti-deportation movements) and genocide (e.g. overthrowing Slobodan Milosevic) and won.

3. POWER: by working “outside the tent”, civil resistance movements can shift the political spectrum of what’s possible, making it easier for those working inside or on the peripheries of the tent to get what they want. Civil resistance can also offer powerful visual examples of the solutions we want by directly disrupting sources of oppression and acting out alternative futures or through building actual alternatives like Gandhi’s “constructive programmes”, which give allies tangible solutions to point their opponents to, e.g. communities that crowdfund their own community solar projects to retrain workers, whilst also undertaking sustained acts of civil resistance to shut down local coal plants.

4. CREATIVITY: Creativity and the embodiment of alternative peaceful futures is at the heart of effective civil resistance. Core to successful civil resistance movements are distributed, replicable tactics and campaigns, which fosters shared ownership and creativity. Our opponents are increasingly adept at managing the tactics that our movement throws at them. From petitions, marches and stunts, our opponents often know what is coming next and don’t feel threatened by it. To win, we need fresh and creative tactics that keep our opponents on their toes and pressures them to change.

5. POPULARITY: increasingly, people are realising that protests and petitions alone are not enough. They are desperate for new forms of action that can change the game on climate. The past 2-3 years have seen impressive growth in the number of Australians participating in civil disobedience on climate and fossil fuels. This appetite is mirrored overseas with a recent survey by Avaaz showing that over 60% of their 40 million + member-base want the organisation to build its capacity for civil disobedience. The recent Break Free civil disobedience actions saw record involvement of people who had never participated in civil disobedience before, indicating that there is a growing sector of the community who have had previously low levels of political engagement yet who are now ready to jump straight into much deeper forms of action.

6. SCALE: civil resistance also relies on creating opportunities for people to take action in their own communities, suburbs, networks, etc. In this way, civil resistance also provides the scale we need to achieve the power, speed, and creativity to succeed. The success of this framework can be clearly seen with Lock the Gate, who have over 250 groups across the country taking action of one form or another against unconventional gas. The divestment movement in Australia uses a similar model, allowing people to work with their local institutions to divest, with more than 120 institutions having divested.

What would a successful Civil Resistance Movement on Climate look like in Australia?

1. INCLUSIVE & DIVERSE: As movement strategist Hahrie Han argues, one of the reasons to become a more diverse movement is that it allows us to do better sensing, be it of risks, socio-political landscapes, emotions and attitudes, which in turn enables more appropriate and timely responses. The core drivers of climate change – from colonialism to capitalism – are inherently opposed to diverse participation and alternative ways of thinking and doing.

By ensuring our movements are comprised of and led by diverse peoples and groups, we can grow our collective wisdom, skills and tactical repertoire, keeping our opponents on their toes and openly demonstrating the kind of open and inclusive society that we want. Building and strengthening our community will also develop resilience and confidence in the face of repression, and produce networks that will flourish as people are connected through profound and powerful actions that match their sense of urgency.

2. STRATEGIC & COORDINATED: to win, our action needs to be guided by a common view of what’s holding us back and what’s needed to win. That said, a commitment to coordination shouldn’t become the enemy of action, creativity or diversity. We should be tight on aims, principles and message and loose on most everything else, so our movement can grow and flourish in organic and exciting ways.

3. TRAINED & RESOURCED: training should be built into all aspects of our work so that when people join our movement, they are supported to build their skills, are clear on boundaries and encouraged to take effective action, and recruit others to join the movement. Our movement should be adequately resourced so it can support proper training and manage rapid growth. Whilst larger organisations may wish to be less public in their approach to civil resistance given reputational concerns, they could still support the work by helping to resource it.

4. RESPONSIVE: we should be able to respond to critical climate moments, e.g. extreme weather events, approvals of fossil fuel projects, political decisions, at a scale, frequency and intensity that catches our opponents on the back foot and reduces their power.

5. BROAD and DEEP: we should have a sustained and strong presence in cities and towns around the country, but also at key locations where our opponents derive their power, from political and financial centres to points of fossil fuel extraction, combustion and exportation. The distribution of our people should be guided by a physical power map for of the fossil fuel industry. Ultimately, in every major location in which the fossil fuel industry does business, we should be capable of mobilising and organising our people.

6. CREATIVE: we will employ a broad suite of creative tactics to keep our opponents on their toes and draw public interest and attention to our cause. From street theatre, occupations, unexpected mobilisations, art installations, brand jamming, re-branding and more, the fossil fuel industry and their supporters should not be able to predict what we’ll throw at them next, or from where

7. AMBITIOUS: last but not least, we’d be ambitious – seeking objectives that we know are needed to achieve climate justice and mapping a pathway that we know will get us there and that we are capable of following. In all analysis of civil resistance, the key to success identified has always been the fostering of skills within the movement and not the conditions that movement participants faced. Indeed, it is often despite adverse conditions that civil resistance movements win. Perhaps the adversity compels us to find capacity and skills we didn’t know we had and apply them to the achievement of ambitious goals.

How can Civil Resistance be used to achieve climate justice?  introducing the pillars of support

The power of the fossil fuel industry is a core obstacle to a swift and just transition towards a 100% renewable energy future, yet many people don’t realise this. So how do we expose its damaging power and then remove it?

At the root of nonviolent action is an understanding that power relies upon the cooperation of large numbers of people acting through institutions, also known as “pillars of support”. By identifying and winning over or neutralising these pillars, the foundations that support oppressive power structures can be made to crumble.

A great quote from the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic sums this up: “Even a dictator can’t collect taxes on his own. He can’t deliver the mail, he can’t even milk a cow. Someone has to obey his orders or the whole thing shuts down. The task is to convince them to disobey.”

So how might we conceptualise the fossil fuel industry’s pillars of support and how could civil resistance be used to win them over to no longer support fossil fuels in Australia?

It’s possible to cut this issue into an infinite number of pillars, however the following section attempts to suggest which pillars the fossil fuel industry is likely to rely upon most. Below is a very superficial attempt at outlining how each pillar supports the fossil fuel industry and how each pillar could be “neutralised” or “won over”. To succeed will require identifying who is best placed to lead on each pillar, which are the most important to tackle and how coordination between each pillar strategy will occur given the interrelationship between each.


How does this pillar support the fossil fuel industry? Financial markets continue to pour capital into fossil fuels with little appreciation for the associated financial, social, or environmental risks. So long as the industry can rely upon a steady flow of money, it will maintain its power and the climate crisis will continue.

Focus: banks, super funds, and insurance companies that finance fossil fuels.

How could civil resistance be used to tackle finance?

Regularly disrupt key financiers of fossil fuels (e.g. banks, insurers, super funds) via:

  • Coordinated office occupations and re-brands
  • Brand-jamming PR en-masse in public places
  • Mass numbers of customers and members leaving fossil-fuel financing banks and super funds
  • Shutting down / occupying / disrupting AGMs and member meetings
  • Coordinated staff strikes

Regularly disrupt financial centres in which fossil fuel financiers operate via:

  • Blockades of roads and entire buildings
  • Street parades that shut down the district
  • Daily occupations of buildings


How does this pillar support the fossil fuel industry? Our politicians continue to approve new fossil fuel projects, accept fossil fuel donations, subsidise the fossil fuel industry, and revolve between political office and the senior rungs of industry like a well-oiled door. So long as our politicians view fossil fuels as a necessary part of Australia’s economic back-bone and social fabric, the industry will have a stronghold on our democracy and our climate and communities will pay the price.

Focus: politicians and parties who support fossil fuels, block action on climate change and deny climate change science.

How could civil resistance be used to tackle political license?

Mass disruption of points of political decision-making:

  • Occupations and re-brands of MP offices
  • Shut-downs of state and federal parliaments, including sustained and escalating “People’s Parliaments” like the one held in Canberra at the end of 2015
  • Mass disruptions of significant domestic and international political meetings (e.g.COPs) and party conferences, especially those that are sponsored/hosted by the fossil fuel industry

Pursuing the individuals:

  • Coordinated bird-dogging of pro-fossil fuel politicians
  • Coordinated civil disobedience in the run-up to council, state, and federal elections targeting pro-fossil fuel politicians and parties
  • Direct action stunts that name extreme weather events after political deniers and fossil fuel pushers.


How does this pillar support the fossil fuel industry?

Our regulatory frameworks enable the fossil fuel industry to do business without having to pay for the damage that their activities are causing to communities, ecosystems and the climate. In the absence of stronger regulation, the fossil fuel industry has free reign to continue polluting without having to take responsibility for the impacts.

Focus: any regulator who regulates sectors that damage the climate (APRA, ASIC, EPA, ACCC, etc).

How could civil resistance be used to win over the regulators?

We want the regulators on our side, so civil resistance tactics shouldn’t be targeted at them. Rather the pursuit of coordinated mass civil resistance targeting other pillars of support should be clearly communicated to regulators via the media, sympathetic politicians and civil society, thereby sending a strong signal that the existing regulatory regime is at odds with what the public want.


How does this pillar support the fossil fuel industry?

Despite the efforts of the divestment movement and others, the fossil fuel industry’s social license still remains, albeit somewhat tarnished. There are still enough people who agree it is important to vote for politicians and opt for financial institutions that support fossil fuels. To undo the fossil fuel industry’s power, we must erode its social license until it can no longer wield financial and political power.

Focus: the public at large, but particularly the fence-sitters, swing voters, and doubters

How could civil resistance be used to win over social license?

The aim here would be to generate sufficient public outrage and action that the fossil fuel industry faces a crisis of public legitimacy. Everywhere they turn, they are opposed – their advertising tarnished, their political advocates voted out, their people boo’ed in public, their offices occupied, their research and statements opposed and their activities disrupted. Key to this pillar is that the participation is mass, highly visible and diverse lest we be shrugged off as a fringe minority. The possibilities for action targeting this pillar are endless and could include:

  • Suburbs, councils and cities declaring themselves fossil free and refusing the fossil fuel industry access to their land, water, and other services
  • Blockading and disruption of industry events and conferences
  • Coordinated and rolling occupations of fossil fuel industry offices by everyday people in major cities calling for mass evictions of the companies from the city
  • Community blockades of fossil fuel infrastructure led by diverse groups of people (e.g. mums, grandparents, doctors, teachers etc)
  • Mass numbers of people refusing to pay their power bills until companies switch to 100% renewables and/or communities moving off the grid en masse
  • Public trials of corrupt industry bosses and their political backers


How does the media support the fossil fuel industry?

The mainstream media has helped to cultivate a powerful narrative that the fossil fuel industry has social standing and legitimacy. Conservative media (e.g. The Australian and the Fin Review) give the industry’s spokespeople airtime, present their projects as critical to the nation’s economic well-being and to international poverty reduction, and frames anti-fossil fuel protest as extreme and illegal. This narrative gives the fossil fuel industry a cloak in which to push us over the climate change cliff without anyone noticing.

Focus: conservative press, e.g. The Australian, The Financial Review, The Sun Herald, Courier Mail, shock jock radio stations and commercial TV.

How could civil resistance be used to win over this pillar? The objective here would be to majorly disrupt the airways of any media outlet that gives the fossil fuel industry a leg to stand on. This could include:

  • Mass boycotts of media outlets that give the fossil fuel industry airtime by individuals and institutions (e.g. refusing to buy or advertise in target outlets)
  • Sustained mass call-ins to media outlets’ complaints line and live-to-air when fossil fuel companies are on the radio and regularly getting in the way of cameras and journalists who are positively reporting on fossil fuels
  • Sustained brand-jamming articles and media sites that report favourably on fossil fuels
  • Disruption of the AGMs and events of conservative media outlets
  • Sustained occupations of pro-fossil fuel media company offices


How do workers support the fossil fuel industry? If the industry doesn’t have labour, it can’t operate. Workers receive employment from the industry so have a vested interest in supporting it, even if it is exploiting them, their families and their communities. Job-loss is one of the major barriers raised in response to calls for a just transition, hence support from workers to find new, safe and rewarding work and reject fossil fuel jobs is key to removing this pillar of support.

Focus: fossil fuel industry workers, e.g. coal miners, power plant workers etc.

How could civil resistance be used to win over workers? By building trust in local communities, tapping into feelings of discontent, injustice and exploitation, workers could be supported to shift from being opponents to allies in the fight for climate justice. Many already are allies but need safe pathways for action. Through building relationships of trust, workers could eventually be invited to participate in or even lead:

  • Strikes
  • AGM takeovers
  • Blockades / occupations of fossil fuel projects and/or companies


How do consumers support the fossil fuel industry? So long as consumers demand their products, the fossil fuel industry has power. To remove this pillar of support, consumers need to withhold their consumption of fossil fuels to a point where it causes major disruption to the industry’s ability to operate. Of course, consumer-led action alone will be insufficient. Government and regulatory action will be needed too, however mass consumer-led disobedience can play a powerful role in catalysing and highlighting the need for reform.

Focus: any consumer anywhere but initially we should focus on shifting the already green-minded as the low-hanging fruit.

How could civil resistance be used to win over consumers?

Strategies to drive a mass exodus away from fossil fuel consumption can cut demand and send the industry into a headspin. Tactics that could be used to achieve this include: At the macro level:

  • Partnerships with unions and workers to blockade ports and reject entry of fossil-fuel ships
  • Businesses boycotting power companies that refuse to transition away from fossil fuels
  • Local governments supporting community-owned power cooperatives which drive the big gentailers out of their local area

At the individual level:

  • Customers refusing to pay power bills en masse, or only paying the percentage that matches the percentage of renewables owned by the company, e.g. AGL has 15% RE, so AGL customers only pay 15% of their bills
  • Mass divestment from banks and super funds
  • Mass occupations / boycotts of petrol stations


How does the judiciary support the fossil fuel industry?

By upholding Government approvals for fossil fuel projects, handing down judgements in support of fossil fuel companies and convicting those who peacefully protest against fossil fuels, the Courts give the fossil fuel industry legal legitimacy.

Focus: the Courts, barristers and lawyers, especially those who are more likely to sympathise with our cause

How could civil resistance be used to win over the judiciary? Like the regulators, we want the Courts on our side, so directly targeting them with civil resistance tactics will be unhelpful. Instead, the focus should be on demonstrating to law enforcers that there is rapidly growing public disillusionment with the fossil fuel industry. This could be achieved via:

  • Civil cases brought on behalf of communities rejecting the fossil fuel industry
  • Public testimonials as part of court cases
  • A rapid and publicly documented increase in the number of people facing Court due to participation in fossil fuel and climate related civil disobedience
  • Supporting legal practitioners to publicly participate in peaceful acts of civil disobedience for the climate and give moving testimonies in Court and in the media about why they took action; this could take the form of a more structured group e.g. “Lawyers for Climate Justice” who regularly participate and add their endorsement to climate/fossil fuel related civil disobedience


How does academia support the fossil fuel industry?

The sector has a tight relationship with industry, partnering on research, training their workforce, accepting their grant and sponsorship money, even being run by former/current fossil fuel executives. Essentially, academia is a research and training ground for the fossil fuel industry. Without this stronghold, the industry would wield far less power.

Focus: universities and research institutes, academics and students

How could civil resistance be used to win over academia?

The sector can become an ally however its support for the industry also needs to be exposed and shamed. This could take the following forms:

  • Sustained occupations at campuses that refuse to divest from fossil fuels or buildings (new or existing) on campuses that support the fossil fuel industry
  • Student and staff teams that can roll-out sustained civil disobedience at campuses in response to major partnership announcements between universities and the fossil fuel industry
  • A mass body of students and staff who publicly promote their willingness to risk arrest, taking peaceful action to break the links between their university and the industry
  • Brand/culture jamming campaigns targeting universities that have a cosy relationship with fossil fuels
  • Students peacefully taking over their university graduations to call on the institution to reject fossil fuels
  • Mass cessation of donations from alumni and other core donors until the university agrees to divest from fossil fuels
  • Disruption of mining industry student recruitment drives / careers fairs
  • Staff and student strikes


How do security forces support the fossil fuel industry?

The police and private security companies play a major role in defending the fossil fuel industry’s stronghold over communities, land and their foothold in metropolitan centres (i.e. offices and headquarters). We are all too familiar with the images of row upon row of police making way for dozers and stopping protesters and landowners from protecting their land from industry capture. So long as the police and security forces see the fossil fuel industry as a legitimate player in society and accept that it is their job to protect them from community opposition, the industry has power over us.

Focus: police and private security companies

How could civil resistance be used to win over security forces?

Possible measures include:

  • Dedicated teams of people at actions who engage directly with police and security to educate them about the damage that fossil fuel companies are doing, e.g. knitting nanas inviting police and security guards for morning tea to discuss what’s at stake
  • Civil resistant actions (e.g. occupations etc.) targeting private security firms that have a large number of fossil fuel clients
  • Peaceful vigil style actions outside local police stations encouraging the police not to defend fossil fuel companies when they attempt to move in on local communities
  • Including art, creativity and peaceful spectacle in actions to counter any perception amongst security forces that our movement is violent.


How do landowners support the fossil fuel industry?

Simply, by accepting their money and giving over the use of their land for fossil fuel companies. Thanks to the work of networks like Lock the Gate, there are an increasing number of landowners who refuse to do this. However coal and gas companies have ample money and smooth-talking staff to go in and negotiate land use agreements with those who are on the fence, misinformed by their PR or facing hardship which a compensation package could temporarily ease.

How can civil resistance be used to win over landowners?

Spreading the powerful model that Lock the Gate has so successfully spearheaded is key. The more communities and landowners declare themselves coal and gas free and prepare themselves to take civil resistant action in the face of coal and gas company encroachment, the more resistant landowners will be forced to join the bandwagon. What are the barriers to building a powerful civil resistance movement in Australia and how might they be overcome?


Situation: NGOs commonly express concerns about their reputation being linked to civil resistance and losing control over the implementation of civil resistance tactics. This has been bolstered by the Coalition’s threats that environment organisations will be stripped of their tax deductibility (DGR) status if they endorse or participate in civil disobedience. There have also been concerns raised about decentralising tactics to groups over whom organisation’s have little control.

Solution: groups and individuals can still support this work behind-the-scenes by providing unbranded support in the form of advice and other non-financial resources (e.g. office space, materials etc), supporting recruitment and promotion efforts, and working with civil resistance organisers to synchronise and strengthen tactics that work inside the tent with those that work outside of the tent. An analysis of the actual, rather than perceived, legal and reputational risks stemming from involvement in civil resistance should also be prepared, with input from legal experts, for organisations interested in working in this space.


Situation: the perception that participating in civil resistance poses more risks (e.g. arrest, violent reprisal, uncertainty of how planned actions will pan out) than benefits.

Solution: many of these fears could be alleviated through a variety of interventions:

  • Training – both in the lead up to actions and events but also on a rolling basis so that people can learn more and weigh up where they stand without the urgency of an action looming. A coordinated training programme could be designed and delivered around the country.
  • An online resources hub – drawing together the many existing fantastic resources that already exist – with customised FAQ materials for different jurisdictions could be developed.
  • A mentor programme – where people who are experienced civil resistance practitioners mentor and train others who are wanting to become more active in the space.
  • A civil resistance celebrities programme – where high profile people who support and participate in civil resistance give talks, write opinion pieces and promote their participation on social media.
  • Clarifying definitions – broadening the perception of what we mean by civil resistance, so that people don’t assume the only option is to take high risk actions, but are presented with a suite of different ways to engage in civil resistance.

The skills to begin building this movement exist already. With adequate funding, movement support and energy, the possibilities are endless. Here is an example of one vision for what this movement could look like. We’d love to talk with you and/or your organisation about how you view civil resistance’s role in fighting climate change, what role you think you could play in building a civil resistance movement in Australia and any concerns you have about the effectiveness of this intervention.


Problem: because larger organisations are reluctant to support civil resistance, the space continues to be chronically under-funded. Solution: non-charity listed groups and individuals work together to develop a grassroots funding strategy including regular crowdfunders, community fundraisers and other innovative sources of income. What will it take to resource this work? This is just a top-line suggestion of initial resourcing needs. More capacity may be needed as the movement grows:

● An action hub: A group of grassroots and non-DGR groups willing to dedicate existing staff time and resources to implementing civil resistance strategy on the ground; ideally there would be a rotating number of convenors for this group

● A training hub: A group of expert trainers, civil resistance practitioners and facilitators willing to work with the action hub to grow the base of people willing and trained to take action

● A volunteer support hub: For this approach to work, we will need to have coordinated but autonomous action groups. We will need structures and resources for supporting those groups, channels for communicating and coordinating across those groups.

● A resources hub: A set of online resources and a collection of physical materials and equipment for implementing civil resistance tactics; ideally there would be someone responsible for collating and managing this

● A comms hub: A sub-group of the action hub that is responsible for spreading the messages of the movement and building acceptance of civil resistance as a necessary form of action, publicising and normalising actions that are happening

● A support hub: A group of NGOs willing to fundraise for / fund and provide in-kind support for the above hubs

About the Author

James Whelan

James Whelan

James is founding co-director of the Change Agency and co-director of the Community Organising Fellowship.

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